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What Would Mindy Do?

Her program in peril, showrunner and star discusses digital media at SXSW

By Amy Gentry, February 28, 2014, Screens

The second season of The Mindy Project won't return from winter hiatus until April 1, but Austin will get an early dose of showrunner and star Mindy Kaling in a SXSW Interactive session moderated by Marie Claire editor Anne Fulenwider and followed by a panel with castmates Ike Barinholtz and Adam Pally. In her session, Kaling will discuss "the emergence of digital players like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, evolving audience expectations and the opportunity for women in television to leverage these changes."

If you fell asleep during that last sentence, wake up. Women are still a minority in television production (about 30% of TV writers, producers, and other creatives are women), but over the past few years, female showrunners have gained significant ground and visibility at the helm of hot network properties like New Girl and Scandal, long-running fan favorites like Supernatural, and critical darlings like Girls. As one of the sharpest writers of The Office and the first South Asian showrunner, Kaling has enjoyed a particularly high profile.

Nevertheless, The Mindy Project has struggled on broadcast television. Despite its sharp comic sensibility and attractive premise, the first season of The Mindy Project failed to find a broad enough audience, disappointing critics and audiences alike with a muddled tone and shifting cast. Fox previewed the second season premiere on Hulu, and ratings for the show's will-they-or-won't-they winter finale surged. Still, the fact that it nabbed a second season at all would be hard to account for if it weren't for Kaling's enduring buzz, fed by her canny presence on Twitter, where she has more than 2.7 million followers.

Kaling has always been a new-media natural. Back in 2006, while writing for The Office, Kaling gained a devoted online following despite her character Kelly Kapoor's limited screen time via a blog called Things I've Bought That I Love. Reveling in her then-new L.A. lifestyle like Charlie in the chocolate factory, Kaling wrote lovingly about hundred-dollar hairbrushes, sequined Christian Louboutins, and the Slanket, of which she was an early partisan. Reading Things I've Bought was like having the funniest, snarkiest best friend in the world, a brainy yet celebrity-obsessed girlie-girl who calls you up just to dish about Oprah's skincare regime. ("She looks like a bar of milk chocolate. I can't even deal.")

Over the course of her career, Kaling's girliness has evolved into a kind of performance art. The Mindy Project's Dr. Mindy Lahiri, a successful gynecologist, may be oodles more competent than dim, shallow Kelly Kapoor, but her penchant for sequins, cupcakes, and Katy Perry remains unabashed. Other successful female showrunner/stars have downplayed their alter egos' femininity, like Tina Fey on 30 Rock, or made it deliberately edgy and avant-garde, like Lena Dunham on Girls. The Mindy Project asks whether a broad network audience – including men – is ready to laugh at, and with, a female boss who loves pink and regularly dines in the American Girl tea room. That question likely won't be answered until spring.

Given her precarious position, we'll be listening closely to Kaling's words about new opportunities for women in digital markets. There's some reason to believe that online platforms might favor women and minorities. Where traditional broadcast TV favors safer, tried-and-true programming in its quest to attract the largest audience possible, online content – which needs only to find a niche to flourish – can afford to narrow its focus. The success of Jenji Kohan's Orange Is the New Black on Netflix proved that risky online programming can pay off, and more recently, critical conversations about this season's Amazon original programming were dominated by another woman-run show – Transparent, by United States of Tara and Six Feet Under veteran Jill Soloway.

It would be a shame if The Mindy Project, which has loads of wit and charm, went off the air. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine that Kaling herself will ever go offscreen.

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